★★★★★ ACO plays host as Swiss band makes most impressive debut.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
November 29, 2015

Something we don’t get enough of in these cash-strapped times is visits by major international ensembles, so the fact that the Australian Chamber Orchestra have managed to pull off a foreign exchange with their Swiss counterparts in Basel is to be roundly applauded. That they were able to pack out the Sydney Opera House concert hall is a testament to the reputation of the 40-odd players that make up one of Europe’s elite bands. And the icing on the cake was the sublime contribution of Argentine-born but Swiss resident cellist Sol Gabetta, playing a major new concerto written especially for her.

Swiss conductor Paul Sacher wasn’t your average maestro. At the time of his death in 1999 he was reckoned Europe’s wealthiest man, and one who as a tireless impressario had founded a previous incarnation of the Basler Kammerorchester that lasted from 1926 to 1987. During that period, Sacher singlehandedly enriched the chamber orchestra repertoire with major works by the likes of Stravinsky, Honegger, Frank Martin, Lutoslawski and Strauss. One of his most notable commissions was Béla Bartók’s spunky Divertimento, which burst onto the concert stage in 1938. It was fitting then that the current incarnation, the 31-year-old Kammerorchester Basel (or BCO as I’ll call them), chose to start their programme with a work for strings and a nod to their prestigious past.

With its chugging rhythms and folk-inflected dance measures Bartók’s upbeat work made a lively opener, the BCO exhibiting a warm-toned approach to music that can sometimes appear spiky and confronting. That said, there was no lack of passion as their leader Yuki Kasai, perched on a rostra front left, urged them forwards while offering her own notable solo contributions into the bargain. Discipline was paramount in a performance packed full of nuance but never wayward. The sombre, nocturnal Adagio was utterly compelling, the string tone full, yet spare enough to tease out the glacial harmonics. The entire orchestra seemed to breathe as one in a grimly satisfying essay in sound during which you could have heard a pin drop. The essentially jolly third movement received a buoyant performance, the BCO keying in to its catchy beats, Britten-esque textures and all-round tuneful cheeriness.

Sol Gabetta (photo by Uwe Arens)

A small smattering of wind and brass joined their fellows before Sol Gabetta swept onto the platform. Clad in flame red, she proceeded to give an equally fiery reading of Saint-Saëns’ romantic First Cello Concerto in an effective chamber reduction by David Walter. The 34-year-old cellist displayed a clean tone and muscular technique, biceps rippling as she wrangled her instrument. As a player she’s never indulgent, but equally she’s never detached, always in the moment. Perfectly attuned to the BCO, she allowed the performance to broaden out when required, enabling her to plunge into the intensity of the busy solo part, always sure of being sensitively supported by her colleagues. The segue into the second movement’s graceful minuet was magically handled, and here Gabetta’s cantabile playing was a dream. Equally remarkable was the shift into the thrilling finale with its long, sentimental cello melody taking the players to a place where the sense of shared joy in music making was palpable. This was a brilliant reading full off dazzling fast passagework by an artist who combines intense musicality with a passionate, engaging presence.

After a backward looking first half, the second was all new music and if anything was even more memorable. The Swiss oboist and composer Heinz Holliger wrote his Meta Arca for Camerata Bern and the work is essentially a series of portraits of six former concertmasters (of whom I’d only heard of Thomas Zehetmair). It is an interesting exercise in what stringed instruments are capable of, from stratospheric harmonics and sul ponticello work, to guitar-like strumming and body percussion. The playing again was of a very high order, but with no knowledge of the majority of the personalities portrayed it was a bit of a fruitless task; suffice it to say that one of them seemed to be summed up in a precariously tipsy waltz.

The best was yet to come, however, and in a change of programme we were lucky enough to get a double dose of Gabetta returning to play a work commissioned by her from the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks – his Second Cello Concerto, subtitled “Prescence,” presumably a reference to the sense of the divine that Vasks attempts to bring into all of his works. Her recording of the piece has just been released on Sony (88725423122) but the opportunity to hear it played live was revelatory. With its long meditative sections it’s easy to lose the logic of it all on disc. In the concert hall, on the other hand, Gabetta was able to fully convince that here is a major addition to the cello repertoire.

Beginning with a theme played entirely col legno (that’s where you strike the strings with the wooden back of the bow), the concerto proceeds with a long, frequently double-stopped, ruminative meditation lasting several minutes before the orchestra joins in. The ensuing first movement is tonally accesible and deeply reflective and saw a rapt sense of communion achieved between soloist, orchestra and audience. The stamping allegro that begins the second movement frames a series of contrasting episodes including a dazzling, intense cadenza. Gabetta was equally convincing whether ruminative or impassioned, but it was her conveying of the larger architecture of the work that was perhaps most impressive.

The long, slow finale with its echoes of Barber’s famous Adagio and its seemingly endless flow of melody seemed tailor-made for Gabetta’s effortless legato and soaring tone. At times inspirational, at others, heart breaking, the music felt like it would go on forever while the hymn-like vocalise that Vasks requires to be sung over the top of the music towards the end was both unexpected and captivating. This was intense, concentrated stuff that saw the soloist holding in the audience in the palm of her hand until the final ethereal glissando faded into silence. A magnificent performance, and one that fully deserved its standing ovation.